Sumba, Indonesia – Named after the fragrant trees that once covered the island, the Sumba sandalwood pony is the only Indonesian horse breed that is still intrinsic to the local economy, culture and religion.
An animal with spirit and agility, with good endurance and a friendly disposition, the sandalwood pony is also the only horse breed in Indonesia that is exported abroad: as children’s ponies in Australia and racehorses in Singapore , Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia. They are also sought after by slaughterhouses in the Indonesian province of Sulawesi, where horse meat is a delicacy.
But the proliferation of motorbikes along with the perennial drought in Sumba, about 800 km east of Bali, is forcing more people to migrate from rural to urban areas and some are worried that the pony will be left behind.
“Motorcycles are now more valuable than horses on this island,” says Claude Graves, an American hotelier and philanthropist who has lived in Sumba for 40 years.
“Culture dies. Only the Pasola has been keeping it running, “he added, referring to the annual festival held at the start of the rice planting season in which mounted riders throw spears at each other to apparently fertilize the soil with human blood.The spears are now blunt, but there are still fatalities of pilots and spectators.
Petrus Ledibani, assistant stable manager of Nihi Sumba, a luxury resort that offers a variety of horseback riding activities, says that when his father was small, all Sumba children could ride.
“But now a lot of kids haven’t even sat on horseback; only those who have families who own horses or who participate in horse races know how to ride,” he said.
One of the eight official breeds of horses advertised in Indonesia, sandalwood ponies have small ears, a short muscular neck and an unusually long back. Its lineage dates back to the 8th century, when Chinese traders first visited Indonesia.
“They’re called sandalwood ponies because the Chinese traded Mongolian ponies for sandalwood with the locals,” Carol Sharpe, an Australian natural riding expert who founded the Nihi Sumba stables, told Al Jazeera. “Later they were bred with Arabian horses brought by traders from the Middle East. Arabic is naturally a very flying horse, while Mongolian is also fast but more robust with more endurance, so it is a very good mix. But they are not good for work because of their small height, probably due to centuries of malnutrition. There is a lot of grass on the island, but most of it is not nutritious.
But the Sumbanese, who practice Catholicism or Islam, covered in animism, found many other uses for ponies: transportation, status symbols, dowry payments, sacrifices for funerals, and vehicles to store wealth.
In the 1930s, Dutch settlers introduced circuit-style horse racing to the island.
A racing horse breeding industry also emerged that crosses purebred sandalwood ponies and is now dominated by Chinese-born Indonesians. But many Sumba breeders have little concern for the welfare of their animals, according to Sharpe.
“Crossbreeds develop a lot of back problems due to starting to compete too early. I have seen foals only 12 or 18 months old on the track. They also interfere with them, inject steroids and feed them energy drinks or coffee before the races, ”he said.
“More allow their horses to fall wild in thin times to save money on feed. They don’t usually last long. In 2019 we had a horrible drought. Horses fell like flies.
Despite his general poor health, Sharpe recognizes that larger thoroughbreds and sandals are more suitable for complex activities than sandalwood ponies and began building a herd.
“They had been trained to run using scare tactics, so at first they were uncontrollable. Anyone trying to ride them would end up on the ground, “he said.” That’s where my work in natural riding helped them slow down the speed of the sunset along the beach, skills I passed on to the stable boys. ” .
Sharpe also learned new skills from his stable boys, specifically, how to wash animals by taking them surfing, sometimes with riders on their backs. Over time, the bathing ritual became an activity dedicated to the complex.
When guests took photos and shared them online, the swimming horses went viral on Instagram.
“Sumba has always been known in Indonesia as the land of horses,” said Jonathan Hani, a horse breeder in Sumba’s sleepy capital, Waingapu. “But when Nihi’s guests started swimming with horses and people saw the photos abroad, the exhibition was very good for us. It put Sumba on the map. We have a lot more international tourists.”
The complex’s manager, Madlen Ernest, also believes the horses have maintained ownership on the surface during the coronavirus pandemic and have put food on the tables of more than 300 employees.
“Before the pandemic, almost all of our guests were foreigners, so when the international travel ban was introduced in April we had to close,” he said.
“Four months later we reopened the doors to the Indonesian market. At first we weren’t sure if it would work, but things turned out much faster than expected, because some of the Indonesian influencers who stayed here posted photos of horses swimming on Instagram.
A journey to heaven
The Sumba Foundation, a charity that provides drinking water, health care, nutrition and education to some 35,000 people on the island, has also taken advantage of the appreciation of tourists for Sumba horses.
“We get the children of the villages to go down to the beach with their horses to do races. Tourists buy tickets to bet on their favorites and all the winners go to specific projects, “said CEO Patrick Compau.” In our last race, we raised $ 4,400 for a girl with a rare genetic defect in the gut that needs surgery in Bali to save his life. “
Adds Claude Grave, founder of the charity: “We are seeing eight-year-olds competing, proud. It’s great that we can raise money, but for me children’s racing is about preserving culture. “
Despite recent changes in Sumba’s life, horse breeder Hani believes that the sandalwood pony will always be part of the island’s culture.
“Most people no longer use them for transportation because motorcycles are more comfortable, but they are still used in all parts of our culture,” he said. “When a boy wants to marry a girl, they have to give horses to their parents. When someone dies, the family has to sacrifice a horse because we believe it will take their soul to heaven.
“Horses are our best friends in Sumba, a part of the family,” he says. “Owning one is a symbol of pride. If a person has a horse, it means he has good character. “